banana millet breakfast porridge

The year of 2023 was recognized as the International Year of Millets by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. With the full year of celebrations behind us, we caught up with Don Osborn, PhD, co-founder of the North American Millets Alliance to learn more about how the landscape for millets has shifted, and what to expect next from these versatile ancient grains. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s take a step back. How did you get involved with millets?

Don Osborn: I came to this interest in millets rather indirectly. I first encountered pearl millet, sorghum, and fonio while a Peace Corps rural development volunteer in West Africa. The word “millet” is a funny thing, sometimes referring to one of several of the small grains we call millets, and sometimes covering the whole group. When I came back to the US, pearl millet was what I thought of as “millet” (these days, sorghum and fonio are often included among the millets, but I hadn’t made that connection). So, when I saw “millet” for sale in a food co-op in 1987, I thought I could reconnect with the flavor of pearl millet, but it looked and tasted different – that was proso millet, which is what we grow in the US. I was later introduced to foxtail millet in Chinese cuisine, and finger millet in a malted nonalcoholic beverage of Uganda. But it wasn’t until I walked into a store specializing in Indian food products in 2015 that I realized there’s a whole lot more going on with these little grains. South Asia is sort of a crossroads of millets domesticated locally and introduced ages ago from other parts of Asia and Africa. So, with the announcement of the International Year of Millets (2023), it was natural for me to ask how to share this awareness with more people. That’s part of the origin story of the North American Millets Alliance.

Do you have any sense of what it might take to shift the market to be more welcoming to millets, or do you have any sense of where the bottlenecks/holdups are?

Don Osborn: Two elements of a strategy come to mind. One is to develop positive perceptions, since many people don’t know or think much about millets. The other is to meet people where they are in terms of food culture, since less-familiar foods are easier to accept in familiar forms.

First, millets face a couple of challenges in a market like ours. They’re not well known or understood. Many people think of millet as one thing, which is correct if you go by what you might see on a supermarket shelf. But this millet (proso) is often connected with birdseed but not human food. But behind each millet are stories – the history, for example, or how and why some farmers are switching to proso millet in the US and others are considering it (water is a big reason).

Second, how can each millet fit most readily into our current food habits? One way might be in baked goods, where they could add taste and texture aspects. Or in breakfast cereals, cold or hot. Not everyone has grains as grains on their dinner plate, unless it’s rice, but many consume noodles or pasta regularly. People who eat quinoa might try a millet as a change of pace.

One way to address both might be through institutional food offerings, where a well-produced dish or baked good would introduce more people to millets. Food grade sorghum, proso millet, and teff can be easily procured in North America, since they are grown here, and should be a cost-effective way to diversify food offerings.

What is your message to consumers who have never tried millets before?

Don Osborn: Maybe start by pointing out that there may be a millet in some foods we’re already eating, such as multigrain breads. WGC has done a nice job of identifying some of these products. Maybe there’s a millet you didn’t know you already like? Millets have nutritional advantages for all, not just people who need to eat gluten-free or low GI foods. The one question I hear from friends who haven’t gotten into millets is how to cook and eat them. Simple instructions and appealing recipes should be central in communicating about any and all millets.

What is your favorite way to enjoy millets at home?

Don Osborn: One is in hot cereal, often cooked with rolled oats. I’m particularly fond of the taste of finger millet and pearl millet — in a coarse grind like grits or idli rava), as well as whole teff (which already is tiny). I would use a coarse grind of sorghum in this way too.

The other way is cooked as one would rice. Proso millet, foxtail millet, sorghum, fonio, and adlay (Job’s tears) are good this way — the smaller millets can be a change from couscous or quinoa.

I once experimented with baking, combining teff flour or finger millet flour with whole wheat in banana breads. Very good! I’d definitely suggest that anyone who likes baking should experiment with flours of millets, since they have different tastes and baking qualities.

What is your message to food makers who have yet to realize millets’ potential?

Don Osborn: Millets are part of the future of food. Not all of them to the same degree, perhaps, but it’s worth experimenting with what they can bring to existing and new products. Some millets for me — like teff and finger millet — seem to be ideal for sweet baked products, while I usually think of others — like proso and foxtail millets — for savory dishes. But others may disagree. In North America now, the easiest ones to procure are sorghum, proso, and teff; other millets are imported at this time, and a few companies are making products with them.

What’s next for the North American Millets Alliance?

Don Osborn: We’re in discussions with different partners about a survey, a resource website (an old goal), and a research project. We hope to host some selected online panels, but not another webinar series like the one we did with University of Missouri in 2023 – that was great, but also a big time commitment. Stay tuned!

Can you tell us more about the “Decade of Millets”?

Don Osborn: This is another part of what’s next for NAMA. It’s part of the Indo-U.S. Millets Initiative spearheaded by the India Millet Initiative and Sorghum United, in which NAMA is honored to participate. The Decade of Millets is our planning horizon, but not an official UN declared observation like the Year of Millets was.

What has been your biggest lesson from the International Year of Millets? Biggest surprise?

Don Osborn: The main lesson is how many people and organizations are already working on or with millets in North America. Most of that is relatively small scale now, but as organizations connect and interest continue to develop, expect to see more. When I say that millets are part of the future of food, that is not just aspirational talk.

A surprise was how widely several millets are grown in North America not for grain, but for animal forage, cover crops, and wildlife. That means that many farmers and extension services are familiar with these crops in these roles, and one imagines that if and when any of them catch on as foods, and we have appropriate crop varieties of them, it will be easy to roll out production of grain for human consumption.

 

Thank you, Don, for sharing your time and expertise with us! To have our Oldways Whole Grains Council blog posts (and more whole grain bonus content!) delivered to your inbox, sign up for our monthly email newsletter, called Just Ask for Whole Grains. (Kelly) 

Comments

Don Osborn
Thank you for the opportunity to share some perspectives on millets and the recently concluded International Year. Thanks also for qualifying me as an expert on millets. I actually tend to think of myself more as an advocate and a researcher (but not one specialized in crop or food sciences). I have indeed put time into learning more about these grains over the last several years, and have been working on communicating about them, especially with NAMA. The broader context for this commitment is the belief that diversity in crops and foods is essential for sustainable agriculture and healthy (and tasty) eating. Among whole grains, millets seem to represent, collectively, a tremendous but not fully appreciated resource towards that end. However, a key element of messaging about millets from here forward, IMO, should be their individual identities (adaptations, flavor, history, etc.) - those stories are often the most interesting.
Leslie Cerier
Wonderful article! I’ve been cooking professionally with Teff since 1990, and I’ve often substituted millet flour in recipes, where I’ve done tap, flour, such as in pancakes, cookies, waffles, and other pastries. The versatility of Teff, Millet and sorghum, expand my kitchen repertoire and anyone who has come to my cooking classes. These ancient grains are delicious and nutritious and help. All of us become the artist in the kitchen with their neutral colors that can be mixed and match with a variety of colorful vegetables, herbs, and spices.

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